Memories Galore

The Grinch hard at work in Houma
December 12, 2015
William Gautreaux
December 16, 2015
The Grinch hard at work in Houma
December 12, 2015
William Gautreaux
December 16, 2015

About 35 mallards dropped from high altitude at the quacking invitation of our guide. They circled just out of range before committing to land in this pond dotting the vast south Louisiana marshland. Eight pintails joined them, giving color to a cold, gray, misty morning.

The pintails slashed down just beyond the decoys in the shallow brackish water. However, we couldn’t shoot. We needed just one duck to fill our limit and had already limited out on mallards. We couldn’t risk hitting another mallard by firing at a pintail, so we waited.

A few more minutes wouldn’t matter. We had already waited decades since our last hunt together. Eric Holbrook and I grew up running the marshes, swamps and forests of southern Louisiana. We chased everything from squirrels to girls. (We had more success with squirrels!) We shared many a duck blind on cold, misty mornings and boats on blazing hot afternoons. Just hunting with Eric again after so many years was special enough, but this December day was extra special. This was my birthday and God had certainly already blessed us with a wonderful gift of excellent hunting.

After high school, I headed to college in Lafayette and eventually joined the Air Force, serving for 12 years. Eric selected the Navy for his career, retiring as a senior chief petty officer after a long and distinguished career navigating nuclear submarines.

We kept in touch over the years, but rarely saw each other, much less hunted together. Uncle Sam frequently kept us thousands of miles apart. However, our thoughts always returned to the many mornings we shared in the Louisiana marshes. On this misty morning, we reminisced about those old times between waves of ducks. Eric wanted to commemorate our reunion by mounting a drake pintail.

“Here comes one,” our guide said as shooting hours began that cold, drizzling morning. “Not a pintail, but a spoonbill if you want him.”

I dropped the bird with one shot. The guide soon downed the next one with one shot.

“After all these years, we still have never been blanked,” I said.

“Nope!” Eric remembered. “We may have set out to shoot ducks and wound up with squirrels or went squirrel hunting and caught bass, but we never have been skunked.”

“Eric, next duck belongs to you,” I insisted. “Here comes another single. It’s not the pintail you want to put on your wall, but it’s a duck nevertheless.”

Eric missed twice.

“Out of practice?” I chided. “Our guide and I had a good streak going. Now you messed up our average. At least you loaded your gun this time.”

“I knew you’d bring that up again,” Eric retorted. “Yes, I remember when you dropped three blue-wings out of a flock one September morning and I didn’t shoot because I forgot to load my gun. Yes, I remember that’s the only action we had all day, but I also remember when you scared a pond full of ducks early one other morning because you couldn’t wait to go to the bathroom until after shooting hours began. They all flared when you stood up in the blind and never came back.”

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” I replied.

“Yes, but did you have to do it right then?”

Eric eventually redeemed himself with better shooting as the morning advanced. Still, we enjoyed needling each other just like when two youths shared numerous duck blinds, fishing boats, pirogues and forest paths many years ago. Drizzle soon broke into pouring cold rain, offering little comfort this frigid December morn. For a time, even the ducks stopped flying and our minds rewound back a few years.

“Felsh, remember when we used to camp out in that wooden boat your dad built?” Eric suggested. “Does this rain remind you of something?”

“Sure does,” I replied. “We stretched a tarpaulin over the open back while dad crawled into the cabin he built in the bow, the one that only fit one person just his size. We didn’t have any heaters. It was some cold under that tarp.”

“Yeah, remember when it rained so hard that the tarp blew in and soaked me with gallons of ice water in the middle of the night?” Eric said. “The next week, I slept on the other side of the boat and it happened again. You didn’t get a drop on you. Just my luck.”

“Yeah, well, unload your gun first and I’ll tell you that your luck is not as bad as you thought,” I replied. “Remember how I always volunteered to erect the frame with clamps before we stretched the tarp over the boat? If I rigged it one way, the left side of the boat would get wet. If I rigged it the other way, the right side got wet. The next week, you insisted on sleeping on the other side of the boat, so I just reversed the clamps.”

“What! You set me up, why I should …”

“Wait, ducks coming in. Shoot them.”

“Can’t. You told me to unload my gun. Doesn’t matter. The way I’m shooting today, I probably couldn’t hit them anyway.”

More ducks continued to respond to our guide’s calling. Before 9 a.m., we completed our limit of mallards and filled in the blanks with teal, spoonbills and a mottled duck, but that illusive pintail drake still flew somewhere over the marshes. With one duck remaining on our limit, we passed on several shots at various species and even resisted the temptation to shoot at mallards landing in the decoys. Eric never got a shot at the eight pintails that coasted in with the large flock of mallards that morning.

“Remember when you pushed me into the river on that cold Christmas Eve after returning from wood duck hunting?” Eric asked.

“Yes,” I responded. “I also remember you vowing to get back at me if it took the rest of your life. Well, it didn’t take that long. A couple months later, we went fishing on a miserably cold day. After I docked the boat, you pushed me into the freezing alligator-infested bayou.”

“We’ve done some mean things to each other,” Eric recalled, “but we’ve always had fun. I’ve never had a better hunting partner. We went every place, hunted just about everything and caught just about every type of fish in Louisiana. If our parents had lived on the water when we were in school, neither one of us would have graduated.”

What had been intermittent light rain started to look like Niagara Falls as a cold front whistled through the area with extreme vengeance. We couldn’t wait much longer for that illusive pintail with such a nasty storm approaching so we decided to take the next duck that flew into range and head back to the lodge for hot coffee and delicious spicy gumbo. We didn’t wait long.

Moments later, a lone gadwall appeared over the decoys. Eric fired three times, but the bird kept going.

“Still out of practice?”

“No, just going easy on you for your birthday, old man,” he replied. “Happy Birthday.”

The next day, Eric did bag his pintail, a young drake with a short sprig, but he decided not to mount it. Instead, he selected an excellent green-winged teal drake to commemorate this reunion trip and the many times we spent teal hunting on those glorious September mornings so long ago. •

Jimmy Darnell blows his call to attract ducks into range while hunting in the south Louisiana marshes.JOHN FELSHER | THE TIMES